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The pontoon bows out

THE LAST SAIL: Pontoon ferries in Kazungula

End of the Kazungula ferry as new bridge set to open

Estimated to have started operating in Botswana in the mid 60s, the pontoon’s days in Kazungula are coming to an end.

With the impressive Kazungula Bridge due to open for business imminently there will no longer be need for the aging boat to ferry passengers across the Zambezi River.

Rusty and admittedly ugly to look at, the pontoon has a rich and colourful history.

Not only was the ferry a vital mode of transport during Southern Africa’s liberation struggle, it also attracted the wrath of the racist Rhodesian and South African governments who suspected it was being used to smuggle weapons to liberation armies.

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Indeed, simmering tensions eventually erupted on 13 April 1979 with Rhodesian attackers sinking the ferry.

A Rhodesian military communique issued in Salisbury said the ferry had been carrying war materials for the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army, the military wing of Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU).

In the end though, the boat outlasted the bombs and bullets.

For residents of Kazungula, Kasane, and Livingston, the ferry has for many years been the only option across the unrelenting Zambezi River.

Indeed it played a pivotal role in the transportation of goods and services between the two countries. It hauled cargo trucks daily, enhancing regional trade and playing its part in the development of the North/South Corridor.

It took a P3 billion bridge to render this roll-on-roll-off 1951 invention by American farmer, Ambrose Weers, obsolete.

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However, while its time in Kazungula is fast running out, the pontoon is set for new adventures.

Zambia’s Minister of Housing and Infrastructure Development, Vincent Mwale revealed they plan to move their pontoon to other areas of their country.

He said they have been experiencing shortage and breakdowns, and the opening of the bridge will give them a chance to use the pontoon ferries elsewhere.

Botswana has a totally different plan for their pontoon.

During the final inspection of the new bridge last Saturday, Minister of Transport and Communication, Thulaganyo Segokgo announced that the iconic flattish boat will be used for tourism purposes.

Although the Minister did not specify how this would work, he admitted it was the end of the boat’s current method of operation.

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“We’re constructing another bridge in Mohembo, which is much bigger than this one. The ferry there will also be used for tourism because they have played a huge part in connecting us with our sisters and brothers in Zambia. We need to preserve them as they are an integral part of history between the two countries.”

Meanwhile, speaking on condition of anonymity, claiming they have been warned not to give interviews to the media, one of the operators revealed they have already been absorbed into the Central Transport Organisation (CTO) as drivers.

“What people don’t realise is that their easy access to the river will no longer be easy. Very few will have a chance to see the bridge, you’ll have to pass through the border,” he noted.

“It’s over,” concluded the veteran operator wistfully.

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